1st Amendment

The term “1st Amendment” is the term used to identify Amendment I to the United States Constitution. Also, a part of the Bill of Rights, the 1st Amendment spells out several basic rights granted to U.S. citizens. It guarantees freedom of worship, freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and the right to assemble peacefully. To explore this concept, consider the following 1st Amendment definition.

Definition of 1st Amendment

Noun

  1. Amendment I to the United States Constitution that grants United States Citizens the freedom to worship, freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and the right to assemble peacefully.

Origin

Late-18th century   Old French (Amender)

First Amendment Rights

Congress passed the First Amendment on September 25, 1789, and the states ratified it on December 15, 1791. As one of the original amendments to constitute the Bill of Rights, it protects fundamental rights for Americans. The amendment, sometimes referred to as “freedom of expression,” reads:

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

Initially, First Amendment rights only applied to laws at the federal level. However, in 1925, the Supreme Court began applying it to the states through a process known as incorporation. Since the this amendment is rather vague, the Supreme Court interprets the extent of the protection that it offers.

Freedom of Religion

Religion has played a large role in United States politics since the colonial era. After suffering religious persecution in England, the Puritans and Pilgrims fled to New England in the 1600s. The Puritans did not tolerate opposing religious views and banned Catholics, Quakers, and other non-Puritan groups. A banned Puritan, Roger Williams, founded Rhode Island and granted religious freedom to everyone.

In 1779, Thomas Jefferson drafted a bill to guarantees all Virginians religious freedom, but the bill failed. In 1785, when James Madison drafted the First Amendment, which included constitutional protection for freedom of religion. The First Amendment addressed the subject of religion with two provisions: the and the Establishment Clause.

Free Exercise of Religion Clause

The Free Exercise clause grants citizens the right to accept and practice any religious belief, and attend the houses of worship, of their choice. It also protects actions made on behalf of those beliefs unless those actions harm others. The clause also prohibits the government from making laws that specifically target religious groups or practices. One example is Prince v. Massachusetts, 321 U.S. 158 (1944). In this case, the Supreme Court held that states could force inoculation of children, even if it contradicted religious beliefs.

 

Establishment of Religion

The Establishment Clause in the First Amendment protects freedom of religion by prohibiting the government from establishing a religion. The clause also prevents the government from supporting, endorsing, or becoming too involved in religious activities of any one sect or another. In most Establishment clause cases, the Supreme Court applies the Lemon Test. This test derived from the case of Lemon v. Kurtzman, and now referred to as the “Lemon Test,” uses three requirements that state law must meet:

  1. The law must have a non-religion purpose
  2. The law must not have the primary purpose of advancing or inhibiting religion
  3. The government must avoid excessive entanglement with religion

Both clauses protect freedom of religion, and commonly a violation of one results in a violation of the other. For example, mandatory prayers in public schools violates the establishment clause since public schools are considered government spaces. It also violates the free exercise clause of students who may not believe in prayer. It does not, however, prevent those who wish to pray in public schools from doing so, as long as they do not try to coerce others to follow suit.

When it comes to the government however, protecting one clause risks violating the other. For instance, allowing student-led prayer on school property may violate the Establishment Clause. But, if it prohibits all school prayer on school property, it violates the Free Exercise Clause.

Freedom of Speech

The First Amendment guarantees citizens the right to express information, opinions, and ideas without fear of government censorship. On the most basic level, it grants people the right to express their opinions without fear of censorship by the government, even if the opinion is unpopular. It also protects all forms of communications including printed materials.

Freedom of speech does not mean people can say anything they want, however. For example, the First Amendment does not apply to speech that incites violence, or which causes severe distress to others. It also does not protect speech that incites illegal actions or solicits other people to commit crimes. Other forms of speech not protected include:

  • Obscene materials
  • True threats
  • Defamation (libel and slander)
  • Plagiarism of copyrighted material

The Supreme Court has also addressed the issue of freedom of expression, also known as “artistic freedom.” Freedom of expression is only subject to restriction if it will cause direct and imminent harm. The Supreme Court uses a principle known as “content neutrality” to make decisions regarding artistic freedom. This means that the government cannot censor artistic expression just because part of the population finds it offensive.

Peaceful Assembly

The 1st Amendment also protects the right of peaceful assembly and petition. The right to assemble ensures that the citizens can have public meetings without fear of government interference. It also allows people to form associations. However, these rights are not absolute. The government can restrict the time and place of assembly. These restrictions are permissible if the assembly interferes with the rights of others, or encourages or involves criminal activity.

The Right to Petition gives people the right to petition and lobby government officials. It also allows one to make a complaint against the government or ask for assistance without fear of punishment.

Freedom of the Press

Freedom of the press is crucial to democracy since it encourages the free exchange of ideas. This section of the 1st Amendment gives citizens the right to circulate opinions in print without government censorship. Like the other freedoms granted in the amendment, freedom of the press has limitations. Citizens can seek redress if false statements damage their reputations. It also does not protect the leaking of government documents that pose an immediate threat to military forces.

1st Amendment Example Involving the Establishment Clause

One notable case example on the 1st Amendment is that of Everson v. Board of Education, 330 U.S. 1 (1947). A New Jersey school authorized reimbursement by school boards for transportation to and from school, including private schools. Over 95% of the schools benefitting were parochial Catholic schools. A taxpayer in Ewing Township, Arch R. Everson, filed a lawsuit claiming the indirect aid to religion violated the First Amendment and the state constitution. The lower courts ruled against Everson, and he appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court upheld the lower court’s decision. It ruled that the law did not violate the U.S. Constitution since it did not directly support the Catholic schools. Rather, the law helped parents of all religions transport their children to and from school.

Related Legal Terms and Issues

  • Amendment – The modification, correction, addition to, or deletion from, a legal document.
  • Congress – The legislative branch of the United States federal government, composed of the House of Representatives and the Senate.

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